[This is a review of The Blacklist season 2, episode 18. There will be SPOILERS.]
How many times have Liz and Red begun a conversation only to have it end with him revealing some small kernel of truth - and then, instead of letting him explain, Liz walks away, saying something to the effect that they're done, or their relationship is strictly business? And how many times has The Blacklist brought them back together after a few episodes, when Liz learns that Red did what he did for a good (if not misguided) reason, and soon the two are best buddies again (buying and selling apartments to reduce the debt of guilt hanging over both their heads)?
The end of 'Vanessa Cruz' offers the audience a few weeks worth of Liz-Red enmity in the span of a few seconds, after Liz delivers the Fulcrum, and Red delivers the news that he hired Tom (sure, it's Jacob, but I guess we're sticking with Tom? He looks like a Tom) to enter her life. What would have been the start of some serious cold-shouldering by Liz was cut short by an assassin's bullet that struck Red down, leaving the episode on sort of a weak cliffhanger, since we know Red's not going to die. Someone puts a bullet in Captain Useless (a.k.a. Donald Ressler) or Aram Mojtabai and there might be some intrigue based on how expendable those characters are.
Still, there are plenty of questions to be had in the wake of Red's shooting. Questions like: who was the shooter, and did Liz and Dembe actually see him/her, or were they just blindly lashing out, spraying bullets into a populated area? There's also the question of why was Red shot? Did it have to do with the tricky backchannel power play he attempted with regard to the syndicate? Or was it because the Fulcrum was finally in his hands (or Dembe's, more accurately)? It stands to reason those two factors had something to do with it. After all, everyone wants the Fulcrum. So, it could have been an order sent down by Jasper, or by the Director (or, more likely, both). Or, knowing how this show likes to operate, it could have been someone totally random. Some Romanian expat with whom Red once spent a few weeks in Crete – "a few weeks that got very messy," Red would probably say with a hearty laugh.
For what it's worth, the episode does make a valiant effort to be about more than Red getting shot, or getting his hands on the Fulcrum. It even attempts to be more than Tom sticking around, talking to Liz about his plans to buy a boat and open up a charter business, even though he doesn't know how to swim. It even tries to pretend that stilted line about learning how to swim wasn't the worst bit of dialogue the show had chewed up and spit out in a long time.
But that's the main problem with 'Vanessa Cruz': for all its mildly engaging procedural antics about a woman framing rich businessmen (in what appears to be a never ending revenge scheme), it is so obviously trying not to be about Red and Liz that the seams are showing in virtually ever scene that doesn't feature them. The episode even includes a scene wherein the titular Cruz has a skeevy businessman in a leather fetish mask on a hotel bed. And while that sort of scenario is well within The Blacklist's particular puerile wheelhouse, it's so disconnected from everything else that's going on, it feels like another show. At one point, Ressler is digging through Cruz's meticulously organized treasure trove of physical evidence that she uses to ruin said businessmen, and it took a minute to remember what the hell he was doing there.
To the episode's credit, however, there is an attempt to make Cruz into something more than just the villain of the week (that much is certain by the fact that she evades capture and ends up closer to Red than she realizes). Cruz's relationship with Abby helps make her seem more human, especially since Vanessa refuses to kill her lover as part of the grand scheme. There is also some useful backstory that helps make the character a little more sympathetic than your average blacklister. Vanessa's tragic loss of her husband, and her sick mother are (despite being clichés) evidence that the audience should care somewhat about her, and her reasons for doing what she does. That doesn't make Vanessa's character feel any less flat, but it does help keep the door open for her to return.
All in all, it's a mixed bag of an episode that delivers some potentially big moments, but does so by placing them at the very end. As a result, there's no follow through, so sense of true consequence. Red's injury will no doubt keep Liz close. Hopefully, that proximity will allow the two to finally clear the air between them, so that the series can move on to bigger an better things, like dealing with the Director and the syndicate.
The Blacklist returns Thursday, April 23 with 'Leonard Caul' @9pm on NBC.